On Sunday the Buffalo Bills kick off their 2016 season against the Baltimore Ravens. We’ve spent the last nine months talking to death about Bills, so let’s take a look at a few members of the opposing team. Each week, we’ll scout the “X-Factors” that may decide the game when it plays out.
Offense: Kamar Aiken, WR
Remember this guy? In 2011, he was one of the more impressive undrafted rookies at St. John Fisher, only to fall short of the active roster and sign with the practice squad. He was signed from the squad to New England in 2012, but failed to accumulate any stats.
Aiken finally found his home with the Baltimore Ravens, blossoming with a 75/944/5 receiving season in 2015 after a series of injuries opened the door. The eternal Steve Smith has locked down a major role in the offense. Aiken’s other competition for the top pairing consists of Breshad Perriman (a 2015 first round pick who has missed almost the entirety of the last year-plus with injury), and Mike Wallace (who teams still seem to trust despite lousy efficiency numbers in the last three years of receiving).
Assuming Aiken is still a major component of Baltimore’s offense, he’ll be a substantial challenge for any of Buffalo’s cornerbacks. The 6’2” 215 pounder still has all of the tools that made him an intriguing prospect as a rookie, but he’s refined them to become a valued professional. Aiken has deep speed and has built a few stutter steps into his routes to earn separation, but his best quality is how he combines impressive concentration with rock-solid bulk and positioning at the catch point. Aiken will win a few comeback routes thanks to the ease with which he adjusts to the ball and boxes out a cornerback. If Aiken has a day on Sunday, it will put plenty of stress on Buffalo’s offense to keep pace with Baltimore.
Defense: Brandon Williams, NT
This 6’1” 340 pounder is a black hole where the interior of an offensive line vanishes in a hurry. Williams is a powerful dude with a low center of gravity, but he also has an excellent vision for developing plays, which helps him clog up running lanes and redirect players. He’s not just a space-eater, either, with 35 solo tackles in the 2015 season.
Williams is a major threat to any team hoping to establish a running game up the middle. And last season, the runs that depended on Karlos Williams slashing up the gut behind Jerome Felton would be prime examples of the risk this tackle creates. But Karlos and Felton are gone, and with the team’s choice to keep Glenn Gronkowski and Reggie Bush on the roster, and to pursue other h-back targets like Dan Vitale, could the Bills scheme around Williams by emphasizing the outside zone?
Bonus: Devin Hester, KR/PR
This is quite literally a bonus factor for Baltimore, as they signed the legendary returner off the street last week. Hester missed most of the season last year due to turf toe, but he was still scoring touchdowns off of punts as recently as 2014. A healthy Hester puts major stress on Buffalo’s coverage units, but at least the Bills chose to make special teams contributions an emphasis this year.